National unrest sparks new interest in Confederate monument
In August, white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. There were multiple spates of violence at the gathering, including an incident in which an Ohio man rammed his car into a group of counter-protestors, injuring many and killing 23-year-old Heather Heyer.
The incident caused a ripple effect throughout the nation, where many communities have renewed calls to remove Confederate statues and monuments.
Here in Delaware, the Lower Sussex chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People felt that ripple. Members say a Confederate monument in Georgetown has rankled them for years.
“Charlottesville set me off,” said Lower Sussex NAACP president Francis Louise Henry. “I couldn’t believe it. I was appalled. I was seeing things that haven’t happened for 50 years.”
She has requested state funding be revoked from the Georgetown Historical Society, which owns the land the monument sits on.
“It’s not a lot of money,” the 76-year-old Seaford resident said, “But it’s the principle of the thing.”
For the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the Delaware General Assembly’s annual grant-in-aid bill allotted the Georgetown Historical Society about $11,500, down $3,000 from the year before. According to GHS board of directors president Jim Bowden, that money is used almost entirely on electrical bills at the Nutter D. Marvel Carriage Museum, which is the property of the GHS.
On the grounds of the museum, located at 510 S. Bedford St., there are 30 horse-drawn carriages, a church, a schoolhouse and a blacksmith’s shop, all from the 1800s, and various other buildings. Toward the back of the property sits the Confederate monument.
The monument features a Confederate flag flying next to an American flag, an obelisk and other stone structures listing the names of Delawareans who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. It was originally placed in 2007, after the board of the GHS voted to allow a local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to do so. The Sons of Confederate Veterans has expanded the monument over time, as their research found new names to add to the list of soldiers.
The GHS has at no point paid for the monument or its upkeep. In fact, the monument isn’t even lit, meaning it’s not contributing to the electrical bill. The Confederate monument at the Marvel Carriage Museum is merely taking up space on private property.
Still, Henry thinks the state should rethink the funding.
“You should be able to do what you want on private property,” she said. “But then I found out they were getting funds from taxpayers.”
The president of the NAACP Delaware State Conference, Linwood Jackson, agrees.
“We’re not against Confederate history,” he said. “The problem is its being paid for by taxpayer money.”
Delaware was an enigma during the Civil War, officially siding with the Union despite many Confederate sympathizers, and Georgetown was a smaller model of that dichotomy.
In fact, so was the Circle itself.
“The Brick Hotel, as it stands today, was renamed the Union Hotel for that time period, and the Eagle Hotel was where the county building sits now, next to the courthouse. People sympathetic of the Southern cause would gravitate to the Eagle,” said the GHS’s Bowden. “We heard stories of fights breaking out in the Circle because of animosities between the two, but of course, that was probably fueled by beer.”
According to Bowden, there were about 1,500 slaves in Delaware when the war broke out, about 1,100 to 1,200 of which were in Sussex County.
“There was the Governor, William Henry Harrison Ross, [who owned slaves] in Seaford, and a Mr. Burton from down around near Indian River,” he said. “Most slaves were in the Indian River area.”
For Bowden, the Confederate monument deserves its place at the Marvel Carriage Museum because it tells a piece of little known history.
“I had never heard of it before the board voted to allow the monument to be placed on the grounds. I did not know there were Confederate soldiers from all three counties in Delaware,” he said.
According to Jeff Plummer, a “middle-aged” Rehoboth man who heads up the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the monument was funded entirely by private donations to the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Delawareans who wished to fight for the Confederacy had to leave the state to join a Confederate unit, so there are no official Delaware records of their service. The monument lists soldiers’ names, along with both their hometowns and unit locations.
“I don’t believe the monument should be removed. We shouldn’t erase or sanitize history. It should be there so others can learn from it,” Plummer said.
Jane Hovington is both a member of the Lower Sussex NAACP and the Committee Chair of the Sussex County Democratic Party. A few years ago, she spoke to The News Journal about the monument. Her opinion surprised some.
“A flag over a memorial, like we have here, is not representative of hatred," she said in 2015.
Though Hovington’s opinion is not the same as some of her fellow NAACP members, it hasn’t changed.
“It’s honoring their dead. We have more important things in this world to confront. I haven’t changed my position,” she told Sussex Living.
Legislators weigh in
Georgetown is represented in the Delaware General Assembly by two Republicans, Sen. Brian Pettyjohn and Rep. Ruth Briggs King. Neither support revoking the GHS’s funding.
Briggs King issued a statement addressing the issue.
“If we prohibit the Georgetown Historical Society from educating the public on the events that shaped our country and state then what message are we sending as Americans? We cannot - and should not - rewrite history, nor can we deny the past,” she said.
Pettyjohn did not respond to Sussex Living’s requests for comment, but said publically that he doesn’t support withholding funding from the GHS.
Gov. John Carney, however, does.
"I agree with President Obama that the Confederate flag belongs in a museum, not flying over one … There's a difference between displaying a flag in a museum for historical purposes, and displaying the flag publicly because you approve the message it sends,” he said. “The Confederate flag is a symbol of this country's history with racism and injustice. Taxpayer money should not support public display of the flag."
Regardless of anyone’s opinion, it would take a vote of the Delaware General Assembly to revoke the GHS’s funding.
“The NAACP has no plans to take further action at this particular time,” Jackson said. “We hope the legislators will do the right thing.”